Playing It By Ear

The promise of music has been part of our marriage from the beginning. Peggy was playing folk tunes on a guitar the night we met, and on our honeymoon we bought an old 12-string Goya in Montreal. I spent the rest of that journey trying to tune it, and work up “Tell Old Bill”, and “The Midnight Special”. Endlessly.

There have always been musical instruments in our house. They were generally out of tune or half-broken, but still fit to make noise on. If we crossed paths with a dilapidated instrument, we’d take it in and fondle it. A busted wooden flute in London. Harmonicas. A Civil War Era fife. Tambourines. A Sears Catalog mandolin circa 1910. Tourist maracas. Pennywhistles and recorders. A kalimba. Handmade drums. A noseflute.

Whenever our musical friend Willy passed through with his acoustic bag of tricks we’d haul out the noise-makers and frolic along with him. But never in tune, and barely in time. I gave up trying to tune that 12-string, and Willy bought us a yardsale 6-string which he converted into a partially fret-less instrument – so tuning wasn’t an issue. I actually wrote a cycle of Maritime songs on that thing, the recording of which is painful to hear.

Sometimes I believed I could learn how to play – something, anything. I’d strum or blow or thump it. But then I’d turn away from the instrument at hand, in disgust. I made comic instruments in the shop. Carved “bloats” (a diggery-do with finger holes you play like a bugle), a duck-call trumpet, a dowel-guitar, percussive amusements – but nothing in true temper. The best I seemed to do was quack along in time. I assumed that was as close as I’d come to being a player.

Still, our life was full of music. In the 70s Rock and Roll was our daily news. We’d pick up each week’s Rolling Stone and head down to the record store to get the lowdown. FM radio played in our space whenever the vinal wasn’t spinning, or the reel-to-reel cranking. I worked in the shop under ear-phones, dancing and singing along.

Peggy abandoned the guitar, as she put aside most of her artistic passions, in her 20s. The virtuosi effect at Dalton and Harvard had killed much of her creative joy. In those hot-houses you were taught to believe creativity was the business of professional geniuses. The rest of us should sit down and shut up. Later, as her work began to swallow Peggy’s energy, she begrudged herself the time to draw, or sing, or play. She didn’t “deserve” those escapes, and anyway she wasn’t “good enough.”

My stumbling blocks were different. I’d always done the things I was naturally good at, or fascinated by, and avoided the tough stuff. Particularly the learning-by-rote. Anything requiring repetitive drill didn’t happen. I struggled through Latin, and never really learned to speak another language. I still don’t know my multiplication tables. And playing scales? Hah! But mostly I hated sounding bad. Playing with others made me blush to my boots. Fumbling along to a recording made my teeth hurt.

Somehow I kept on trying, though. One day at a flutist’s house I picked up her instrument, noodled a bit, and she insisted on giving me her old Bundy student flute. The first real flute I’d owned that actually played all the notes. So I began again to pick out familiar melodies, and play along with recordings. Pretty sad stuff. I could stagger through some basic folk melodies in D by myself, play along in C, F and G, sometimes. But throw me a few more flats, or a key change, and I was lost.

There was one character in the house who was finding his way, though. Growing up in a home full of music and instruments opened the door for Seth, and the guitar Peggy bought for me one Christmas very soon became his guitar. Seth and his buddies were jamming in the house, and sometimes I’d noodle along on that Bundy, finding my way into the 1-4-5.
Meanwhile we were hanging out with the local bands. Peggy and I were groupies for the “Lawn Ornaments Band”, go-going to their rock with such dances as “The Whirly-gig”, “The Flamingo,” and the “Bent-over Lady.” If we couldn’t make the music, at least we could get ecstatic on the dance floor. I was particularly drawn to the “Blues Buzzards,” four old birds who could get in the groove and rock all night.

I don’t remember when it happened, or how I found the gumption to approach them, but one night I showed up at a Buzzard rehearsal and whistled a riff or two. God it was painful. Those guys sounded so good, and I was just flubbing. But (bless them), they said “cool” and asked me back. Worse yet, they asked me to go on stage with them at a real performance. Aiieee. I still wonder I dared. But it was a local gig, with a local crowd, and – what the hell – I was 50. If you can’t make a fool of yourself at 50, when can you? Maybe it was because I finally accepted my limitations that I could risk looking like an idiot – and sounding worse.

I became a fledgling Buzzard. That put the pressure on me to really learn their tunes. The band had a sampler tape and I’d practice to it in the woodshop, working out a riff here, a melody line there, a fill. It helped a lot the Buzzards are loud and electric. They could cover my squeaks and squawks, and – I suspect – Earl would turn down my mike those nights I was really off.

Self-conscious? Painfully. Some tunes I’d go right into fugue – my anxiety resonating with my mistakes. But the magic of those old buzzards is they are totally un-judgmental. They’re playing for the fun of it, so why sweat the small stuff? I learned to turn fluffs into chromatic improvs, bluesy accidentals, or rhythmic discordance. As if I meant it. And I began to learn the tunes.

I was learning a lot more about playing music, too. That it’s about listening. I could play a tune a dozen times, following the melody I heard in my head, only to discover this note was actually flatted or that one bent – when I listened closely. If you are playing by ear, you better listen up.

The more you play, the better you hear. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t hear with acuity at the start -- if I’d really listened to my discordance I’d have thrown in the towel. At each step I’ve sharpened my hearing, and had to hone my facility.

Playing is totally right brain for me, which may be why I love it – being in the music shuts down the rational observer. But it’s a delicate juggle. You need to think your way into new routines in the woodshed, practice them until they are reflex, then forget to think about the technical details while you’re playing out. Work on the flatted keys and chromatic runs with the observer turned on – then just play. Those old buzzards let me flounder around finding the melody, the riff, the flute hole, until I get in the groove, without critical analysis. With them I can feel my way into the music without thinking about it. Slowly I became a player.

I discovered ensemble playing is a distinct skill, and an endless political balancing act. As my hearing clarified, the instruments separated from the sound of the band, and I could hear the individual voices. Listening to music had been a gestalt experience – a roomful of blues. Then I began to follow the conversation. And realized I’m temperamentally suited to some kinds of converse, and not others – which parallels my musical taste.

Rigorous order doesn’t do it for me. Which is why, though I can appreciate classical music intellectually, it leaves me cold. Playing to a fixed score has none of the spark of improv, for me. Perhaps my hearing will perfect to the point where I’ll be thrilled by the personal interpretations of great artists, or moved by the harmonic subtleties of composers. But my nature thrives on variety. I never play a lick the same way twice, and the perfection of a score is like a fly in amber for me. Let it out. The trend to classicalization in jazz – the Wynton Marsalis effect – where young virtuosi play the masters’ riffs note for note, feels like a violation of ethos to me. A triumph of left brain over right.

So I’m drawn to folk idioms. Blues, early jazz, singer-songwriter stuff, 60s R&R. Tunes in constant evolution, passed from band to band, player to player. Folk music doesn’t suffer from too much self-importance, which suits me. I don’t believe in a hierarchy of music with Mozart or Coltrane at the top. Maybe my lack of technical skill or theoretical expertise means I’m more comfortable with the simpler forms of music. No blame. At my level of playing I can feel my way into folk tunes without intellectual angst.

My aversion to hierarchical values carries over into ensemble politics. Some bands have a designated ego. A leader who has a vision, or a gift, or a greater need to be out front. If Rock and Roll has a teenage ethos, you’d expect it to foster egotism, and an electric guitar band breeds inflation – especially of lead guitar players. Earl is no exception. He plays a hot lead and sparks the ecstatic energy. But the magic of the Buzzards, for me, is their absolute egalitarianism. They let me in, after all – because I had a new sound to add to the mix, even if I couldn’t play for beans. So there is a constant push-pull between the egotism of lead guitar and the ensemble egalitarianism.

A band is society in microcosm. The Buzzards are the kind of village I want to live in. I find us juggling the voices in a tune like a Dixieland Jazz band. All jiving together on separate paths, trading leads, doubling and dividing, only the groove holding us together. To be sure we do lots of tunes which have the traditional form of lead vocal and guitar in front with everyone else behind, but on the good nights Hal starts talking on the cymbals, BJ goes a little wild on the bass, David walks up the fingerboard, I start cross-talking Earl’s lead, and the hierarchy breaks down. Nobody is in charge, and the music plays. My kind of town.

Earl keeps trying to make a studio band out of us. Get just the right sound. Dub in better tracks. Control the production. But he’s shoveling against the tide. Whenever we get into the studio we go nuts with the lush sound and jam away the session instead of working the tunes Earl has in mind. The rawness of free play enlivens all of us. When we try to settle down and make a perfect take, the music disintegrates. The studio work makes us hear all the details, and improves our performance, but the orderliness of the setting can freeze the dance. Put your right brain in, put your right brain out. Directing old buzzards is like herding cats.

Meanwhile Peggy was finding her way back to the music. About the time I went Buzzarding she joined a woman’s choral group. But Peggy has an edgy voice that jumps out at you. When she’s in full throat it can knock you down. Not the kind of voice for multi-part harmony, unless you want to sound like The Band. After a couple of years rehearsing, the chorus asked Peggy to leave. Her voice didn’t “blend,” they said. I wrote a little rocker called “My Baby’s Not A Blender.” She ain’t a toaster, either, but she’s hot stuff. And I love her voice.

We kept the faith. Just before Christmas in ’99 we were driving home from a do when Peggy asked me if there was anything I wished I’d done. Any millennial pledges. I said I wished I’d learned to play piano. Bingo. Exactly the right answer. When we got home Peggy took me into the front room where our friend Jim the auctioneer had installed an old upright that evening. So I made a promise to put more music in our life, and face up to the 88s.

The first thing that happened was Dr. Bob wandered into the front room and began wailing on the keyboard. He’d played in an R&R band through college, and though his chops were rusty, he sure could pound out the 1-4-5. Next thing you know we were practicing a couple nights a week, piano and flute, working up rock and pop standards. We might cross paths at lunch time in the restaurant and find ourselves making afternoon tunes instead of paying attention to business.

Bob had just enough theory to prompt me, and by pushing each other along we began to find a sound and tighten our technique. The Dr. is much more rigorous in his approach to making music than those old buzzards. He likes to have all the details worked out before playing with others. He hears the original recording as the “right” way to do a tune. My impulse to improvise is a nice counter-balance to Bob’s rigor, and he salted my tail with a bit of discipline. I began putting together play-books of lyrics and chord changes, burning practice CDs of material we wanted to work up.

When Peggy unplugged that blender she started singing with the two of us, turning my solo leads into duets – voice and flute. We invited other players to come jam, and began to have regular Monday night sessions. Peggy would lay on a big spread, then we’d get up from the table and make loud music.

So what are we playing for? For the fun of it certainly. And to learn more. But when a bunch of players begin to work up arrangements, get a sound going, find the groove – what then? Are we going to play out, throw parties, find paying gigs? We batted the perennial question back and forth. Dr. Bob was uncertain about adding audience to the mix. He wanted to sound “perfect” before he went public. Other players felt that putting together a performance set is necessary to the next step. Getting it tight.

After a year of jam sessions we had a band together. Bob on piano and bass, Peggy on vocals, David on rhythm guitar and vocals, Hal on drums (can’t get enough of those buzzards), Craig on lead guitar and vocals -- and me whistling Dixie. Each player brought a different sensibility to the mix. David is the rock-steady groove and the bluesman. Bob tends to structure the arrangement, and likes the top of the pops, circa 1970. Hal is a genius rhythm improviser who jazzes the hell out of any number. Craig had been performing bluegrass on mandolin and acoustic guitar, so he added folk-rock lyricism and a stunning voice – not to mention some hot licks on electric ax. Peggy has that torch voice, and her harmonies with Craig and David could make your hair stand up. I played around on top, finding flute holes and melodic riffs.

Then we played out, and it all fell apart. We couldn’t finesse the lousy acoustics in the Town Hall, and sounded awful to ourselves. Other gigs were a bust because events went on too long, we got shunted off into a corner, there were conflicting musical additions and subtractions, yadda-yadda. Typical playing out stuff, but it was more than our fragile alliance could sustain. The sound was embarrassing. Egos collided, old wounds started to bleed – and we were out in musical limbo again.

Without the good doctor to lay down a frame for me to whistle around, and Peggy to sing to, we were cast onto our own resources. Peggy started strumming a guitar again, and I began fingering the ivories. A spacey bass and piano player blew through town promising musical delights in perpetuity, and stayed long enough to give me three “lessons.” I must have been ready. Elizabeth showed me just enough of the elements that I immediately saw how it works. The rest is just playing. When I’d encounter a puzzle, Dr. Bob would stop by and ‘splain me. I stopped pounding the computer keyboard, and fooled with the black and whites. When my father died, and I was swallowed by depression, I found solace in the music, and might spent upwards of 3 hours a day clunking through the blues. Didn’t matter how bad the playing – it eased me.

Trying to work up duets with Peggy was tough. There were too many undercurrents – often the vibes got in the way of the vibe. With both of us trying to learn our instruments, and sing together, it was like a four-headed monster butting brains. But we know the music is in there somewhere, and when it does come out there’s nothing sweeter. So we kept keeping on.

And the beat goes on. The Buzzards keep on buzzing. Earl’s gig as the music teacher at the Hyde School provides him with a recording studio and excuses to bring his buddies into the school performances. He’s turned me into his utility flute player, to dub in a line on a recording, or stand up with a young performer on the school stage. Earl keeps upping my ante, setting me challenges just beyond my musical competence. And I’m a quick study when I know I’ve got to stand up in front of a crowd, and do it.

The summer of 2003 saw another bend in the river. Giovanni de Basso came out on the Toad lugging his stand-up bass. In no time yarting cruises turned into musicruises, with the artists putting down their tools to tune up, and stray musicians showing up at the dock. John is a musical magnet, and a man with a gift.

He learned how to tune piano by ear as a kid, from his grandfather, and his aural acuity is so fine as to be contagious. He immediately tuned our old upright, giving me a lesson in acoustic theory, and sharpening my hearing noticeably, in the process. He started giving everyone hanging with him lessons on their instruments, and pushed us way beyond our limitations. Peggy’s guitar playing took a leap. Dr. Bob began dissecting the details of the Billy Joel songs he’d aspired to play. Craig was playing jazz and picking up the fiddle. I started to hear the leading tones in a tune and grok on the theoretical structure. John would drop a truckload of theory on you in one session, and when you’d dug out you were higher up the hill.

John would play with us on the Toad, or in the front parlor, or wherever there were instruments lying around – very quietly. Savoring each detail. And we began to hear structures behind the music. When he’d come out and play lead, which was rarely, we’d marvel in the richness and inspired variety. It didn’t seem to matter that we were such tyros in his presence, he was up for giving master classes whenever musicians were at hand. And he could weave the mix together. One September day on the Toad he had Craig and Hope on fiddles and me on flute following his bass in a classical quartet!

John lifted us to new levels of playing, and the beat goes on. Earl proposed we work up a new trio, with me on flute and Kent on stand-up bass, featuring him singing and playing acoustic guitar. In typical fashion he asked us if we were up for it a week before the first gig he’d booked. We had one rehearsal (which we recorded so I could learn the material – thank heaven), and wung it. Naturally Earl had picked a handful of new tunes which pushed my envelope. Who knew The Girl From Ipanema had such a strange chord structure, and a melody touching every chromatic note except B natural? “Soft and tan and young and lovely..”

So now I’m playing in an acoustic trio doing standards, and there’s no place to hide. That’s Earl’s method. Put you right out front and make you perform. It sure focuses the energy.

We’ve resuscitated the Monday night jams at chez Muir, on Tuesdays. We’re getting in the groove again, overhauling stacks of new material. It’s all cross-fertilizing. Bob brings a new tune to me when we’re playing duo, Peggy learns the words and chords, we work it up as a trio and in the Monday mix. David, Hal, BJ and I take it to the Buzzards, and round it goes. David plays a new song at his Thursday jam at McBeans and I pass it on to Bob. I’ll figure out a standard on piano, dump it into the hopper, and then learn the flute line in ensemble. David and Kathleen and Peggy and I will rummage the songbooks after dinner, Kathleen will start off a tune on mandolin, and away we go. Who said homemade music is dead?

No matter where the musical energy erupts it feeds the fire. I can hear a lick on a recording, and it will come out on the stand in a different tune. I can fumble my way down a bass run on the piano and play a cross riff on flute when that song comes around in ensemble. I think I’m learning the chords, and suddenly I’m singing the lyrics. I’ll not fool on the flute for a couple of days, pounding the 88s, and my playing will have taken a turning. Now all music is grist for my mill.

Not that I’m grinding especially fine. I’m still a raw recruit in this army, but I’m learning the basics. As the new year approaches we seem to be crossing musical thresholds. I find I can almost jam along to any tune, in any key. That’s been my ambition for a long time now. Almost. I’m now willing to play piano and sing in the ensemble. A little. And Peggy and I seem to have jumped the hurdle, and can now play together without incendiary friction. Most days.

A while back I read a fascinating book called “Beethoven’s Anvil.” The author is a neurologist and jazz horn man. He contends the conventional model of musical perception – musicians out there, listeners in here, or vice versa – doesn’t cover all the bases. He says our brainwaves entrain with music and we are actually functioning as part of a larger neurological net when we are “musicking.” Whether we are playing and/or listening. This certainly fits with the experience of ensemble playing. As a solo visual artist, I find it very different to be creating music with a group of people. Nice, nice, very nice. If you think you are all alone, get out into a musical scene – as a player or as a groupie. You might just lose your head and start musicking. We highly recommend it.